Despite the outcry in Okinawa, replacing U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new base outside the prefecture will be difficult given Japan’s worsening security environment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Monday.
Addressing a Diet committee, Abe also criticized North Korea for ratcheting up its rhetoric after the U.N. Security Council resolved to strengthen sanctions against the hermit state following its third nuclear test in February.
“Units of the U.S. Marines need to stay together,” he said. “I have to say that it would be an infeasible policy to separate the Futenma unit and move it outside the prefecture.”
Abe, who met last month with Okinawan leaders to persuade them to back the central government’s position, said his stance was justified by the “provocations against (Japan’s) sovereignty as well as its land, sea and airspace,” apparently referring to the increasingly assertive moves being taken by the Chinese military since the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands flared up last year.
The “deterrence” provided by the U.S. Marines in Okinawa is “indispensable for security in our country and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific area,” Abe said, especially at a time when Pyongyang is boosting both its nuclear arms and missile technology and threatening to use both.
Referring to North Korea’s announcement Monday through its ruling party’s official mouthpiece that it had scrapped the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War, Abe said: “It is a provocation. The situation does not allow optimism.”
Pyongyang has abrogated the truce to protest the U.N. Security Council’s resolution last week to impose harsher sanctions for conducting rocket launches and nuclear tests in defiance of past council resolutions.
Tokyo and Washington have agreed to replace the Futenma base, which is located in a densely populated area, with a new airstrip to be built in a less-populated part of Okinawa further north. The base “should never be fixed at the current location,” Abe told the Diet.
The government is expected to ask permission from the Okinawa governor to begin filling in sea areas at the envisioned replacement base site as early as this month, even as Okinawa residents want the base out of their prefecture, which has long hosted the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.